By Daniel Goleman, author, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Apathy in organizations is often a result of a disconnection between what matters to the person and what they’re asked to do. Yet apathy isn’t always easy to gauge at work. A team member’s performance may not be up to snuff for any number of reasons: personal stress, burnout, office strife, etc.

Sometimes the best way to gauge if someone isn’t engaged is to simply ask: Do you enjoy what you’re doing?

Moods Matter at Work

There’s still a dated mentality around work: it’s not supposed to be “fun.” We have a job to do. But after speaking with Dr. Daniel Siegel for my Leadership: A Master Class, I would argue that enjoying a task can boost performance and encourage employee engagement – and retention.

Siegel says: “There’s a circuit in the emotional areas of the brain that’s involved in playfulness. It actually promotes plasticity of the brain. It engages creative combinations of things that can really benefit a worker. Too often we separate work from play. Yet incorporating more joy in our work life is a great thing to do neurologically.”

One of the very positive leadership styles is called the affiliative leader. This type of leader knows that having a good time together is not a wasted effort. They recognize that it builds positive energy and social and emotional capital. Dr. Siegel explains why enjoyable activities are important for a well-functioning brain.

Rethink Reward Systems

“Play is associated with a release of dopamine. It creates a reward system. Those rewarding feelings encourage exploration, which is crucial for a productive worker.”

This is also where innovation comes from — the moment that allows for creativity to emerge. It’s exciting and motivating. Every organization needs that energy from their workers if it’s going to be survive.

When you become familiar with a task it becomes routine. That person may become very efficient at their job, but where is the motivation to learn something new if the task is so set in stone? Anything that’s routinized doesn’t allow for creativity.

Secure Base

For innovation to happen, you really want to have people step out of the familiar and take joy in making new combinations. That requires vulnerability. A person has to feel like she’s in an environment that respects that when she steps out of the familiar, she’s going in to territory where it may not work out. And that’s okay.

A teacher, for example, needs to create an environment in the classroom where kids feel that they can make mistakes and learn from them. They should know it’s good to explore new ways of combining knowledge. Organizations need to create the same kind of positive attitude for innovation and exploration.

Empathy Goes a Long Way

Two of the leadership styles that have a very negative effect on organizational climate are the command-and-control leader — “Just do it because I’m the boss, and I say so.” And the other is what’s called the pace setter, who’s often someone with a very high internal standard for performance. He’s a solitary performer. He drives himself. However, when he becomes the boss, he doesn’t draw on any of the leadership styles. He leads by example. “Do it the way I do.” And he looks at other people through this same internal lens of excellence, giving only F grades — no A grades.

This approach lacks empathy and leaves the other person feeling misunderstood, disrespected and disappointed. Hardly the mindset you want a productive team member to have on a regular basis.

What Can You Do?

How can you help bring more enjoyment and meaning to your team’s workday while still getting the work done?

  • Start a conversation around what they’d like to accomplish in the next 3 or 6 months. Ask them to focus on something they enjoy, or have always wanted to try.
  • Show your team that what they’re doing matters. Are they making circuit boards to use in heart monitors? Give examples of how their work positively impacts the lives of others.
  • Doing something good for others naturally increases ones’ own happiness. There are dozens of local organizations that could use a helping hand in some way from your team. Or offer to pitch in to help another department that’s snowed in with work.
  • Mix it up. People can get sloppy and careless when their tasks become too routine. Find new ways of performing a job. You may even discover a more efficient approach.

Share Your Ideas

How do you keep your team engaged and motivated? Share your experiences in the comments.

Read my full conversation with Dr. Daniel Siegel in the new ebook compilation, Transform: Habits of Superior Managers. You can also watch our discussion in the Leadership: A Master Class.

Daniel Goleman
Daniel Goleman